Part I: Burning Trees for Electricity Will Set Back Climate Progress
Right now, world leaders are meeting in Peru at COP-20. This 12-day session is the 20th Conference of the Parties to 1992’s UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Key strategies for reducing carbon emissions across nations will be discussed before final agreements are reached at COP-21 in Paris in 2015. One of the most important areas for consideration is forests and their role in the fight against climate change.
Forests not only remove carbon from the atmosphere by ‘breathing’ in carbon dioxide, but they also store it in wood, roots and soil. A recent scientific report published in the journal Nature confirms that the older the tree, the more carbon it pulls out of the atmosphere.
The longer forests are allowed to grow, the greater the climate benefit.
This basic biological fact has given rise to a number of international programs and policies designed to encourage the protection of forests as carbon sinks. In fact, the Kyoto Protocol of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, of which many European nations are signatories, has developed a variety of tools and policy frameworks to encourage greater forest conservation. Likewise, in the US, the State of California has adopted cap and trade policies consistent with international frameworks to encourage the protection of forest carbon on the landscape. While these policies are not without valid criticisms, the end game is right on target: greater protection for the world’s forests.
Over the past several years, these policies have established a new market for forest carbon. Companies emitting carbon that want to “offset” their emissions with forests must pay for it. In fact, forest carbon is becoming an increasingly valuable asset. According to State of the Carbon Market 2013, “Markets for forest carbon offsets have evolved at breakneck speed” as the market value of carbon offset demand reached an all-time high during 2011 and 2012, averaging $225 million/year. In addition to paying for it, the offset they are purchasing must be verified as meeting certain standards designed to ensure that emission reductions are actually achieved.
Despite this heightened awareness and an evolving framework of global policies designed to protect the climate value of standing forests, Europe has remarkably turned this thinking upside down with its current push to convert existing coal-fired power plants to burn wood or “biomass.”. Ironically, under the guise of reducing carbon emissions, European policy is driving the logging and burning of trees to generate electricity as a “renewable” and “carbon neutral” alternative to fossil fuels. And incredibly much of the wood is imported from the Southern US.
The science is clear, that at the point of combustion, burning wood releases more carbon than coal.
However, European policy assumes (without requiring any proof) that the accelerated carbon emissions of today will be “offset” by forest growth at some point in the future. This is true even though multiple studies, including a recent scientific report published by the UK government, warn that in most cases, burning wood to generate electricity will accelerate climate change.
Under Europe’s current climate policy, utility companies like the UK’s Drax are receiving tremendous government subsidies to convert coal burning plants to wood, burning large volumes of wood pellets produced from destructive clearcutting in sensitive forest ecosystems in the Southern US. In effect, under current policy, utility companies are allowed to take credit for “offsetting” their smokestack carbon emissions today, based on a series of assumptions about future forest growth. That this faulty logic has been adopted into climate policy in Europe is, well, quite frankly, unbelievable.
In doing so, utility companies are in effect allowed to circumvent basic, globally-recognized forest offset protocols and standards. And, just as disturbing, they are getting the carbon offsets for free. Utilities burning fossil fuels are not able to get away with “offsetting” their carbon emissions today based on a shaky set of assumptions about forest growth in the future. Yet Europe is getting away with taking credit today for the assumed future carbon growth in forests owned by private landowners in the Southern US without having to validate, verify or pay for it!
The bottom-line? Europe is robbing the system and placing the world at great risk with its flawed biomass policy.
Logging and burning forests to generate electricity is not a solution to climate change. Rather than a scaled-up use of forests as a fuel alternative to fossil fuels, global leaders must double down on efforts to scale up the protection of forests for their ability to remove and store carbon from the atmosphere.